Rebuilding Beirut | icon 041 | November 2006

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words Justin McGuirk

The GBU-28 was the primary tool in the redesign of southern Beirut.

This two-tonne laser-guided bomb, designed to destroy concrete bunkers, was untested on apartment blocks until 13 July 2006, when Israeli F-15 fighter planes started bombing Dahieh, the city’s southern suburb. Now, in Beirut’s own Ground Zero, an ideological and logistical battle is beginning: what to do with Dahieh?

Dahieh was Hizbollah’s stronghold, and the vision for what this once overcrowded Shia neighbourhood might become is being provided by what the Western media often portrays as a terrorist organisation. In fact, Hizbollah operates as a quasi-autonomous governmental body. The “party of God” is so self-sufficient that along with its own social services departments it has its own architecture and construction firm, called Jihad al-Bina – which translates as “campaign for construction” but plays on the other meaning of jihad: holy war.

Apart from a few isolated targets – the airport, a fuel depot, the lighthouse – Dahieh was the only part of Beirut to feel the full force of Israel’s war machine. Compared to the south of Lebanon, where towns such as Marjayoun, Bint Jbeil and El Khyam were pounded off the map during the summer’s 34-day war, Beirut can feel almost lucky. But Dahieh was the densest part of the city, and rebuilding it means re-imagining it.

Seventeen days after the ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, Dahieh has stopped smouldering. Instead of smoke, dust is rising from the suburb. Mechanical diggers are throwing up clouds of it as they pile rubble into lorries, and many people here are breathing through surgical masks. The roads have been cleared, and as we drive into Dahieh the lorries are groaning past us towards the coast, where the debris is being dumped in the sea.

Crawling through the district, we are in a thread of traffic made up of the curious and the desperately unfortunate. There are Beirutis from other areas pointing incredulously out of car windows, and locals returning to salvage what possessions they can. No building appears to have escaped entirely unscathed. In Haret Hreik, the part of Dahieh where Hizbollah’s headquarters were, there is almost nothing left standing.

My companion on this first trip to Dahieh is Saleem Ajalil, a Lebanese architect from Zaha Hadid’s office in London, and one of many expats who have returned to see how they can help, in his case with the reconstruction. We park near Hizbollah’s media relations headquarters, where I have a meeting with one of the party’s PRs. “Does he have a permit from the Ministry of Information?” asks the nice lady. I don’t. “Then I’m afraid we can’t do any interviews.” I’m not allowed to take pictures either.

Men with walkie-talkies guard most of the street corners. Hizbollah is paranoid about foreign journalists ever since one of them turned out to be an Israeli using another passport – now everyone needs a permit. I fail to notice that one of the lookouts is in shot as I point my camera at a concrete skeleton, and he slaps his head with angst. Saleem pacifies him, but it’s clear that we will have to return with official approval. As we drive out of Dahieh Saleem asks, “Can you imagine coming back to your home and finding nothing there?” I can’t.

During the Lebanese civil war, from 1975 to 1990, buildings could still shelter people. Staircases, for instance, became regular places of refuge during the shelling and gunfighting. But no faction during that war was using GBU-28s. It became commonplace last August to say that the luckiest people in Dahieh lived on the top floor, that way they wouldn’t die suffocating in the rubble. With even blacker humour the destruction has given birth to a joke about the area to the east of Dahieh. It goes: Why have the rents gone up in Ein al Rumaneh? Because now they have a sea view.

“Dahieh” means suburb. It does not, however, match any of the conventional connotations of the word: a beige forest of tower blocks, it housed between half a million and 800,000 people – no one is quite sure – in an area the size of two Hyde Parks. “Dahieh is a political label more than a place name,” says Mona Harb, assistant professor of urban planning at the American University of Beirut. “It has become synonymous with Hizbollah because it is their stronghold. It is largely Shia, strongly religious – an Islamosphere. Many Lebanese fear going there, and the highways surround it to bypass it.”

Once, there was an ideal vision of Dahieh. The suburb was masterplanned by the French architect and urban planner Michel Ecochard in the early 1960s. Ecochard envisaged it as a “new town” that would siphon growth away from the congested city centre. But the suburban vision failed. During the last war with Israel tens of thousands of refugees flooded into Beirut from the south of the country, which the Israelis invaded in 1982 and occupied until 2000. Ecochard’s neat plan soon bristled with cheap tower blocks to house them all, many of them built illegally. Ten- and 12-storey buildings thrust up through six- and eight-storey zones.

Dahieh is largely poor, but not exclusively. Like the rest of Beirut, it is defined along socio-religious lines rather than purely economic ones. The only noticeable architectural difference between this and the other suburbs is that, like many of the women, a high proportion of the buildings in Dahieh are veiled. Striped curtains drape the balconies, protecting the women’s privacy. But, says Harb, “They don’t consider building with that idea, they just make ordinary balconies and expect people to hang curtains.”

Three days after my first visit to Dahieh, I make a second, armed not with a permit but with a personal assurance from the head of Hizbollah’s media relations – achieved through a friend’s mother – that I am his responsibility. This time I plan to interview a local Hizbollah politician about the party’s plans for rebuilding the suburb.

Dr Bilal Naim, whose card reads “Member of administration of the Islamic institution for education & teaching”, is sitting in the relief tent in Haret Hreik. Like most of the people here, who have been working around the clock, he looks exhausted. “We want to build a new suburb – a new look, new buildings,” says Naim. “The essential problem before was the traffic and the very dense population. We hope to make car parks but also public gardens. We want it to be better than in the past but we don’t have a type or a style,” he adds, dashing the idea, suggested by Harb, that Hizbollah is dreaming of a new Dubai (“That is a strong mental image for the region – the Lebanese love towers now”).

Beirut has hardly any public gardens – according to Harb there are three – and, in fact, apart from Martyr’s Square and the seaside strip of the Corniche, there are very few formalised public spaces at all. So how is Naim going to put gardens in Dahieh and still fit the same number of people in? “We have to pay for some people to move elsewhere,” he says, suggesting that some can be housed alongside the neighbouring Christian areas of Ein al-Rumaneh and al-Hadeth. (This sounds improbable – Beirut is not divided up along religious lines for nothing.) But there also seems to be another option: “We can make the towers higher than before and transfer other land to parks. Some suggest a public square called Victory Square.” There are Hizbollah posters all over Beirut proclaiming “The Divine Victory”, so the political will may exist to make at least that one piece of public space happen.

Predictably, given that this is Lebanon, the reconstruction plan is bipartisan. What we have here, effectively, is a reconstruction race between Hizbollah and the government, and Hizbollah is winning by a clear length.

The party has already given each dispossessed household $12,000 (£6,300) to buy new furniture and rent temporary accommodation elsewhere. Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora’s government has been pledged $940 million (£495m) in aid by the international community, and has promised $33,000 (£17,400) to the owners of each destroyed property, with Hizbollah making up the difference.

Since Hizbollah’s money is largely from Iran, the reconstruction – much like the war – is being seen as an ideological battle by proxy. However, most people seem to think it will take the government years to deliver any money. The hope Naim is clinging to is that the US will assist, or pressure, the government to act quickly because it wants to dilute any prestige Hizbollah will gain from the reconstruction.

After the interview I ask my minder, a man in his late twenties called Jawad whose yellow baseball cap marks him out as a Hizbollah adjutant, what he envisages for the suburb. “I want it to be built better than it was, but more important is that the resistance is able to defend it and that my children are able to live here in peace,” he says. Jawad is leading us up the crumbled stairwell of a nearby tower block. We walk into a living room in which a pair of net curtains is gently flapping where the building’s facade used to be. “This is my house,” he says, watching me take in the eviscerated sofa and the damage assessment scribbled on the far wall in Arabic. “No, this one,” he says, pointing through the missing wall at a pile of breeze blocks four storeys below.

Higher towers, a thinned population, public gardens, Victory Square – this is the vision for Dahieh. The reality may look somewhat different, and while Hizbollah controls the suburb, it will have to coordinate any plans with the municipality and the government. “Planning ordinances are not made by Hizbollah,” says Sany Jamal, president of the architect’s section of the Order of Architects and Engineers. “The question is whether you’re going to be able to rebuild what was demolished in terms of density.” According to planning regulations, a building can only be rebuilt as high as the original zoning allowed – so a ten-storey building in a six-storey zone can only be rebuilt up to six storeys. However, Jamal continues, “There’s no doubt this is an extreme circumstance, so the planning ordinance might change. But decisions like this are very political.”

Jihad al-Bina’s offices are in west Dahieh, overlooking the slum that is the Palestinian refugee camp of Burj al-Barajni. If the firm has drawn up any plans for Dahieh then its Beirut director, Walid Jaber, isn’t going to reveal them. “It’s not clear yet whether we will re-plan the whole area or build it as it was,” says Jaber. All he can do for now is outline the disturbing results of his damage assessment programme.

Jaber doesn’t know how many buildings have been completely destroyed but estimates that it is in the hundreds. He does know that there are between 50 and 60 buildings that need to be pulled down before they fall down. There are 150 buildings with reparable structural damage. Meanwhile, about 20,000 apartments have suffered cosmetic damage – and the average number of people sharing an apartment in Dahieh is six.

Foremost on Jaber’s mind is money. He is not confident that the government will pay up fast enough. “Soon the winter will be here, children will enter schools and there are people out of their houses.” His optimistic estimate is that reconstruction will start in the spring.

The question hanging over Dahieh is whether the grand plans of Hizbollah’s politicians will dissolve in the demands of pragmatism and speed. The Lebanese have a word, “machini”, which refers to their tendency to fix things temporarily – for now – irrespective of future problems. Will Dahieh be “machini”? The only certainty is that whatever the suburb looks like in three or five years’ time, however shiny its towers, it will carry the same memory of former ruin as every other part of the city in which now-smooth walls were once raked with bullets and hotels were once bomb sites. Scarring is the ever-present subtext of the Beirut streetscape, and there is no particular expectation among the Beirutis I spoke to that there isn’t more to come.

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